Little Ilja was on his winter holidays. He was roughed up in his brother’s outgrown clothes to handle biting -25C temperature. He tried to cover his face with a woolly scarf and was stumbling through snow while holding his mother’s hand. Every single breath was freezing the insides of his nose. Yet, he was still very charged up as they were approaching their destination which he could almost see through his floppy hat.

“Modern+” was the first improvised western type self-service shop in a small eastern European town. It seemed like a miracle, only a few years had passed since the fall of the USSR. Ilja knew that he would see many interesting and shiny imported quality goods. He didn’t even care if it was something tasty like cola, milk chocolate or gummy bears, even branded western washing powder bags seemed amazing, luxurious and out of this world. For him, it was like going to an exhibition.

He was walking around lost in his own world, imagining himself playing with all those brights plastic toys, eating the whole pack of crisps by himself and only then mentioning it to his older brother… ‘That would teach him a lesson.’ He was diving and running around the aisles while his mum was slowly pushing the stroller and doing her shopping.

The heat in the shop made his clothes soggy and uncomfortable and his enthusiasm started to fade away. Finally, the queue was the last thing to endure. He sniffed his nose and glanced through the window remembering the cold and now dusky walk home…

Suddenly, Ilja saw a security guy walking towards them and checking his mother’s recycled plastic bags. There was an extra pack of coffee and a bottle of shampoo. The cashier said, ‘It’s because of people like you, they cut our wages, what a shame, you’re a thief!’ He saw his mother’s pale face staring into the floor. “I didn’t want to steal it, I forgot to take it out and put it on the counter, I would never do that.’ Ilja was shocked-scared and didn’t realise what was happening. ‘We should call the police, you are a disgrace, you are lucky you didn’t take it outside of the shop, you would go to the prison!’ The little boy couldn’t move. Now he was frozen in a different way, he won’t forget that feeling for the rest of his life, only his eyes were moving and trying to find a spot where no one would notice his frustration and anxiety.

They had to pay for the rest of the goods and were escorted from the shop in the complete silence. Judging faces were louder than any words.They walked for a while trying to calm down and catch their breath. All the dreams about toys and sweets were gone, he was trying to hold in all the emotions and tears of humiliation. He knew that one day this will happen. Mother said. ‘I’m so sorry, Ilja… Please don’t tell anyone.’

He never did.

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